Alpine Tundra

Alpine meadow at Niwot Ridge, CO. Photo Credit: M.J. Spasojevic

Existing high on mountaintops above treeline, the alpine tundra is a windswept, rugged landscape hosting a unique flora specifically adapted to this harsh environment. Because of the intense wind, radiation, cold, ice and snow, alpine plants grow close to the ground and are perennial. Due to the heterogeneity in topography in the mountains, which influences drainage patterns and exposure, a variety of community types are found in the alpine tundra, from wet and moist meadows and late melting snowbeds to dry meadows and fellfields in rocky talus slope.

Alpine communities have a high diversity of wildflowers and grasses, sedges, cushion plants, dwarf shrubs, mosses and lichens, with high rates of endemism due to isolation and glaciation events. These plants provide food for a unique animal community, composed of pika, marmots, voles, weasels, elk and ptarmigan. Although seemingly untouched by human intervention, alpine systems often have experienced grazing in their recent history and are currently being affected by global change threats such as warming, nitrogen deposition, and changes in precipitation regimes. Our research in this system focuses on the role soil microbial communities play in the plant diversity decline seen with nitrogen deposition and how multiple simultaneous global change factors may interact to affect alpine tundra communities.

 

Our alpine work is carried out at Niwot Ridge, an LTER site in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado , and the Mountain Research Station.